Sweden kicked off its title defence with a scoreless draw against England on Friday as Under-21 Euros got underway, but the tedious affair was by no means an indicator of the sparkling young talent on hand in Poland.
With some of the continent’s most celebrated nations, and England, among the 12 sides contesting the biennial tournament, the future stars of football will be on full display. In consideration of efforts for both club and country, here’s a look at the showcase’s 20 best players:
1) Marco Asensio (Spain) – The only player on the list with a goal in a Champions League final, Real Madrid stud Asensio, 21, is poised to become the next star of Spanish football and the fifth Zidane son.
2) Renato Sanches (Portugal) – An ordinary debut campaign at Bayern Munich may have slightly curtailed the hype surrounding the 19-year-old midfield behemoth, but Sanches has already proven his worth at a major tournament, drawing worthy comparisons to Clarence Seedorf.
3) Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy) – Astute and composed beyond his years, Donnarumma, who doesn’t turn 19 until February, is set to star in Poland behind one of the tournament’s best backlines, adding to the lore of a player pegged to succeed Gigi Buffon as Italy’s No. 1.
4) Saul Niguez (Spain) – With five seasons of top-flight football in the rear-view, and both a La Liga title and a Champions League final appearance to boot, Atletico Madrid midfielder Niguez can handle either central or defensive midfield duties as a veteran presence for Albert Celades’ lot.
5) Hector Bellerin (Spain) – Like Sanches, Bellerin’s prestige took a hit this season at Arsenal amid injuries, but the Spanish right-back remains one of football’s speediest players, and a handful on the attack when he cuts in on his left.
6) Mahmoud Dahoud (Germany) – The newest member of Borussia Dortmund’s fledgling flock of young talent, Monchengladbach product Dahoud, 21, is a centre-mid whose varied skill set and tireless work-rate have the Syrian-born German among the tournament’s most refined talents.
7) Domenico Berardi (Italy) – A knee concern this season at Sassuolo put a slight dent in a meteoric rise that saw 22-year-old Berardi emerge as Italy’s next great attacker, though the versatile youngster is again fit and in position to star in Poland as Luigi Di Biagio’s MVP.
8) Rob Holding (England) – It was zero to 100 real quick for this heady centre-half seized from Bolton for a bargain, only to star at Arsenal and receive plaudits from pundits and supporters alike. Holding, 21, appears captain’s material and deserving of a call-up from Gareth Southgate.
9) Gerard Deulofeu (Spain) – From erupting with capacity at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, to sporadic usage at Goodison Park and more recently, a spell at AC Milan rife with flashes of brilliance, Deulofeu is a capricious talent who’s also shamelessly the tournament’s most direct player.
10) Nathan Redmond (England) – At his third Euro Under-21 tourney, Southampton speed merchant Redmond has proven his top-flight worth with both Norwich City and the attack-happy Saints, and with 35 Young Lions’ caps, is third all time behind James Milner (46) and Nathaniel Chalobah (37).
11) Inaki Williams (Spain) – A pacey winger who also fancies a run-out up top, Athletic Bilbao runner Williams is coming off a solid campaign with the Basques, and his willingness to play multiple roles caters well to a lethal attack alongside Asensio and Malaga’s Sandro Ramirez.
12) Jordan Pickford (England) – Poised to snatch England’s No. 1 senior side duties from Joe Hart, Everton’s newly minted shot-stopping stud Pickford starred for a Sunderland club bereft of merit, and his penalty save on Linus Wahlqvist in the tournament opener saved the Young Lions’ tails.
13) Daniele Rugani (Italy) – Patiently awaiting Andrea Barzagli’s retirement at Juventus, rangy centre-back Rugani, 22, will again get a shot to display both his aerial talents and ball-playing skills as he anchors an Italy side looking for a sixth Under-21 triumph.
14) Serge Gnabry (Germany) – It’s incredible to think Tony Pulis couldn’t find a role for right-winger Gnabry while on loan with West Brom, though it’d be wise to trust Bayern Munich’s judgement after it lured the Arsenal product – and not James McClean – to the Allianz Arena.
15) Ruben Neves (Portugal) – The youngest player to captain a Champions League side, Porto midfielder Neves, 20, is a defensive midfielder blessed with stellar vision who will slot into the hole that Sergio Busquets occupies at Barcelona, allowing Sanches to float forward at his leisure.
16) Federico Bernardeschi (Italy) – Happiest on the right wing where he can punish by cutting in on his left a la Arjen Robben, Fiorentina star Bernardeschi is a chic talent whose adaptability pairs with that of Berardi to give Azzurrini boss Di Biagio an abundance of options.
17) Patrik Schick (Czech Republic) – A technically gifted striker, Schick is set to join Juventus on the heels of a breakout campaign at Sampdoria, and for country the 21-year-old matched that standard by leading qualifying with 10 goals for the underdog Czechs.
18) Jonathan Tah (Germany) – Able to ply his trade both as a soft-footed centre-half and on the right for Bayer Leverksusen, Tah, 21, already has 64 league appearances under his belt and three Die Mannschaft caps, including a spot on Jogi Low’s Euro 2016 squad.
19) Marko Grujic (Serbia) – A towering box-to-box midfielder, Liverpool’s Grujic is pegged to play a bigger role this season after being relegated to League Cup duty, and for good reason, as his play has been likened to that of Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira.
20) Max Meyer (Germany) – Bursting at the seams with potential, 21-year-old Schalke wunderkind Meyer is an improvisational crackerjack combining pace and trickery in an advanced midfield role.